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Western Shoshone payments challenged

CRESCENT VALLEY, Nev. - The Western Shoshone have found an ally in U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva to join their near half-century long land battle with the federal government. The Arizona congressman is taking the Department of Interior to task asking some hard-line questions and requesting bundles of documents related to land and treaty rights directly connected with the current distribution bill which considers one-time payments to the tribe.

In a four-page letter, dated Nov. 17 and addressed to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Grijalva, D-Ariz. asked the department to cite the law the government used to take title to Western Shoshone land, called for the release of reports justifying the agency's recent treatment of the tribe and demanded information regarding any meetings or communications the agency has had with special interests eyeing the land for potential energy development.

Although Grijalva said the letter isn't meant to be accusatory or demanding in nature its tone is quite clear. He wants everything laid out on the table so Congress can make an informed decision on H.R. 884, better known as the "Western Shoshone Distribution Bill." Grijalva said he hopes at least to get some "factual answers" to all the questions he raises in his letter.

"The process wasn't as democratic as it should have been," Grijalva said. "There has not been a full disclosure of the facts."

Passage of the bill would settle a long simmering land claims case and award $145 million to Western Shoshone members as reparations for the federal government's taking of their ancestral land. It's estimated that tribal members would receive approximately $30,000 apiece. Grijalva pointed out in his letter that at 24 million acres the payment equates to roughly "15 cents an acre."

But tribal members remain divided over whether to accept a one-time payment from the government or continue seeking ownership of the land. Carrie and Mary Dann are standing firm in their beliefs and fighting to keep control of their homeland.

Citing the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley a faction of the tribe has filed a federal lawsuit and continues to seek title to a swath of land - more than 60 million acres - that stretches across the Great Basin area most of which is in Nevada.

"The Western Shoshone never agreed to sell their land," said Julie Fishel, a spokeswoman for the tribal defense project.

Among Grijalva's many concerns he started his letter by questioning how the U.S. ended tribal ownership of the land saying that "gradual encroachment is not a legally valid method of taking or extinguishing title and the Western Shoshone have never sold, ceded or in any manner transferred title."

He went on to question whether the Interior ever made a seriously effort to negotiate with tribal leaders to resolve the matter and later asked the agency to explain its conflicting testimony before both Congressional and Senate committees.

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Grijalva claimed that officials told a senate committee in 2002 that the Treaty was in "full force" with the exception of a section regarding land boundaries, but then 10 months later told the House Resources Committee that "there was a question as to whether the Treaty ever recognized land rights."

The Arizona congressman also asked for documents justifying why the Bureau of Land Management continues aerial surveillance of Western Shoshone ranchers and asked the agency to provide details on all livestock seizures and raids that occurred on tribal lands.

A little over a year ago the BLM confiscated 227 cattle belonging to the Danns and followed that with the horse roundup in February that the sisters claim led to the deaths of 47 mares and foals at Fish Creek Ranch. The BLM said the Danns have been illegally grazing cattle and horses on the range for more than 30 years and owe the government $3 million in grazing fees.

Fishel said the Grijalva letter helps shine a spotlight on an issue many classify as just a "range war" between the Dann-led Western Shoshone and the federal government but the ties, she said, run much deeper.

Fishel said she hopes other members of Congress back Grijalva and seek the truth which she believes will show a "cozy relationship between federal agencies and corporations."

"Are there deals being cut," Fishel asked. "People are beginning to look at the Department of Interior for answers."

To that, Grijalva called for the release of all material and communications the department has had with third party "industries, individuals or companies" with investments or business development plans within the Ruby Valley treaty area especially those involved with interests in mining, energy, water or nuclear.

Ironically, the same week of Grijalva's letter, the Interior Department and BLM held a scoping meeting in Las Vegas to discuss alternative energy on public lands in preparation of putting together an Environment Impact Statement. It was one of five such meetings scattered throughout the west.

At the meeting Nevada was identified as having many of the best places to tap into geothermal activity. Officials also pointed out that more than half of the 62 applications being considered for construction of wind farms on federal land are for sites within the state and many fall within the disputed Ruby Valley area.

Rebecca Watson, the Interior's assistant secretary for Land and Minerals Management told the few in attendance that, "Nevada sits at an energy crossroads" and that the state will "definitely have a role to play in our nation's alternative energy policy."